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US Democrats abandon Obama's embrace of TPP

Presidential challengers talk tough on China, but stay silent on free trade

Former Vice President Joe Biden, at the Democratic presidential debate in the U.S. city of Detroit, said he would not rejoin the TPP trade deal in its current form.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- If world leaders were wondering whether a Democrat in the White House would reverse U.S. President Donald Trump's trade policies and return them closer to those of former President Barack Obama, they received a rude awakening.

The second set of Democratic primary debates concluded Wednesday, with hardly any of the 20 candidates calling for free trade or speaking of the merits of globalism.

Even Joe Biden, the former vice president and the Democrat seen by many as having the best chance to defeat Trump in the 2020 election, said he would not have the U.S. rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as it stands now, a step away from the centerpiece of Obama's strategy in Asia.

"I would insist that we renegotiate pieces of [TPP] with the Pacific nations that we had in South America and North America so that we could bring them together to hold China accountable ... as to how trade could, should be conducted," Biden said at the event hosted by CNN in the Michigan city of Detroit. "Otherwise, they are going to do exactly what they are doing: fill the vacuum and run the table."

Other top candidates have stated similar beliefs or shifted their answers to focus more on cracking down against multinational corporations following the lead of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

The shift away from free trade deals by the Democratic Party began four years ago during the heated primary contest between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Clinton had been a staunch advocate of the TPP while Sanders was a withering critic of the deal. Clinton eventually withdrew her support for the TPP, which was not popular with the public at the time.

Now in 2019, the mainstream Democratic candidates are more aligned with Bernie Sanders than Barack Obama on trade.

Trump withdrew the U.S. from the TPP in 2017, but the trade pact later took effect with 11 members including Japan, Canada, Singapore, Australia and Chile.

The Democratic Party's two leading progressives, Senators Bernie Sanders, left, and Elizabeth Warren stand side by side on the first night of the second Democratic presidential debate in Detroit on Tuesday.

The TPP was opposed by six of the seven candidates who responded in a survey by the Council on Foreign Relations ahead of the debates. The six candidates were Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York; Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio; Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and author Marianne Williamson. Their main concern was that trade deals like TPP would put corporations before American workers.

"Under no circumstance would we rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership under a Sanders Administration," Sanders wrote in response to CFR's survey. "I helped lead the effort against this disastrous unfettered trade agreement... Re-joining the TPP would not bring back one American job that has been outsourced to China," he wrote.

In Tuesday's debate, one Democrat vouched for TPP.

John Delaney, a former Rep. from Maryland, said during the debate that he is the only candidate for president who supports the trade partnership.

"I think President Obama was right," Delaney said. "He did include environmental standards. He did include labor standards. We would be in an entirely different position with China if we had entered the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We cannot isolate ourselves from the world. We cannot isolate ourselves from Asia."

Delaney is a businessman whose net worth was estimated at over $232 million in 2015, according to nonprofit political campaign database OpenSecrets. His campaign is largely self-funded.

Democratic candidates are not keen on tariffs against Beijing, but they are worried about China's rise. Biden expressed strong concern toward China replacing the U.S. as a global leader.

"Either China is going to write the rules of the road for the 21st century on trade, or we are," he said. "We have to join with the 40% of the world that we had with us, and this time make sure that there's no one sitting at that table doing the deal unless environmentalists are there and labor is there -- and to make sure we equip our workers first to compete by investing in them now in the things that make them more competitive."

Candidates such as Ryan and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas condemned China during the debate on Tuesday night, citing claims similar to those made by Trump, including intellectual property theft and abuse of the economic system.

But Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper oppose tariffs on China. Hickenlooper said the U.S. needs to hold Beijing accountable, but that a trade war is not the way to do it.

"Trade wars are for losers, and the bottom line is ... let's negotiate a better trade deal. But you are not going to win against China in a trade war when they've got 25% of our total debt," Hickenlooper said. "And step back and look at here Trump gives that giant tax cut ... so we are paying in tariffs about $800 to $1,200 per household, and then we give this incredible tax cut to the rich ... That is what's outrageous, but tariffs are not the solution."

Warren, Sanders and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock shifted the trade war conversation to focus on multinational companies. Warren said trade deals help such corporations gain more favorable regulatory terms internationally and "leave the American people behind."

Trump on Thursday tweeted about the Democratic debates, calling the candidates too soft.

"China, Iran & other foreign countries are looking at the Democrat Candidates and 'drooling' over the small prospect that they could be dealing with them in the not too distant future," he said. "They would be able to rip off our beloved USA like never before. With President Trump, NO WAY!"

Trump later tweeted more about U.S.-China trade talks, saying he will put an additional 10% tariff on the remaining $300 billion worth of goods coming from China starting Sept. 1.

The next Democratic presidential debates will be Sept. 12-13 in Houston, Texas. Seven candidates have qualified so far: Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, O'Rourke, Sanders and Warren, according to The New York Times. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and entrepreneur Andrew Yang reportedly are close to qualifying as well.

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